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Consider Restrepo the nonfiction Hurt Locker. When Vanity Fair writer Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm) and photographer Tim Hetherington had the idea of following a platoon to Afghanistan for one year, they had no idea they’d end up stationed in the Korengal Valley, considered one of the most dangerous outposts in the country. Still, cameras in hand and zero preparation save for previous embed experiences, the co-directors collectively spent 10 months with the Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Their intention, according to the documentary’s summary, is to make the viewers feel as if they’re going through a 94-minute deployment.
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Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a rogue cowboy in sight. The biggest criticism of The Hurt Locker was that the military does not suffer fools like the film’s main character, who regularly put himself and his fellow soldiers in danger for an addictive thrill. The gripping Restrepo backs this idea up. Named after the first of the 15-man company’s fallen (and also what the troops called the outpost itself), the film nixes narrative or even interviews with anyone except the soldiers to avoid adding a perspective not shared by the men on the ground. Instead, we get their reactions upon arriving. (Ranging from “We’re not ready for this” to “I felt like fish in a barrel.”) And footage of the shuras, or meetings, they held with the locals. (“If we let you know about the Taliban,” one elder says, “then we will get killed.”) And the thirst for revenge that trumped any sense of duty when things got deadly. (“We find the motherfuckers that did this, and we make them pay,” the captain tells his men. “We make them feel how we feel right now.”)
One of the most wrenching moments is the battlefield death of Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle, not only because of the tragedy itself but a particular soldier’s reaction to it: He sobs, he freaks out, he needs to be escorted away from the body. Don’t we always see military men and women keeping their cool? Not here. Making the horror of their experience more affecting is the fact that they all look like babies, their youth only underscored during happier times when they relax, dance around, and tease each other like frat brothers.
They may indeed have been clueless kids when they signed up, but the interviews and strategizing included in Restrepo show fiercely intelligent and fiercely determined men. And though one soldier does compare the adrenaline rush of battle to crack, everyone is jubilant when the assignment ends, with nobody aching to go back and risk his life for a Hollywood-esque high.